Commutes are nearly inescapable, mostly reviled, and scientifically proved to be bad for us. While Eric Jaffe at Citylab makes the case that no commute at all is actually a bad thing too, that is not a problem that most of us have. But are there not some hidden gems, some small pleasures in the daily trek?
For a while, I was one of the so-called mega-commuters, covering sixty miles thrice a week with a combination of bicycle and train travel. It was stupid, but because I am fundamentally an optimist, I tried to focus on the happy parts: exercise! quiet time! seeing the sun rise! At the time, I would have told you that I actually didn’t mind it, but now that I have a five-minute bicycle commute, I can say that it sucked. Still, it had its charms.
Short commute notwithstanding, in my current job I sometimes have to travel to far-flung parts of my state (you wouldn’t think Connecticut had far-flung parts, but it does). Today, needing to go from Hartford to Stamford, I chose a two-hour train ride over an hour-and-a-half drive and carried my computer so I could do work on the way. I would say it was pretty great, except that when I arrived at Stamford, I found out that one of the other lawyers involved in my case was sick and had called the court to reschedule, so I just turned around and went back to the train station. Still, the fruitless voyage got me to thinking about the little aesthetic pleasures that make even awful commutes tolerable. Herewith, a few examples:
Do you know when I thought I’d find some use in anything former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist ever said or wrote? Never. But a friend (whom I also never expected to quote Rehnquist) posted something on Facebook that the ol’ Chief said at a commencement address in 1989, and it’s actually spot-on, and a good thing to think about as we commence what is sure to be another beautiful late-summer weekend:
While I was in the middle of writing a long meditation on the moral obligations of the rich, I received the following email…
I have come under some criticism of late for being uncharitable toward the rich. To be more precise, I offhandedly wrote, alluding to Ester’s piece on trust fund kids, that my policy concerning people born rich is to distrust them. Commenters took me to task for that, and rightly so: it is foolish and wrong to suppose that affluence, in and of itself, defines character. As one commenter noted, mine was “exactly the kind of ignorance several writers on the Billfold would preach against if it were any other kind of discrimination.”
I think that commenter was right, and I said so in comments and a note appended to the post in question. I also said, “We could have a separate discussion about whether there is any moral imperative on the inheritors of wealth to do something selfless and worthwhile with their money, or about the attitudes that may or may not prevail among them about whether they deserve their good fortune.” Several commenters later suggested that yes, that is a discussion worth having. This came to mind over the weekend, when I was engaged in that most proletarian of leisure activities, camping and reading the New Yorker. So let’s start our discussion about the moral obligations of the wealthy with a focus on how they help people with acute need.
I suppose I should not expect a worldview untouched by a certain elitism when I read the New Yorker, but more and more, I notice that there is an archetypal story about rare diseases and how progress is made in their cures. It goes like this:
1. An upper-middle-class couple notices something unusual about their infant child. 2. Doctors are either flummoxed and unhelpful or convinced that it is a terminal illness. 3. The parents refuse to accept the doctors’ assessment and devote large sums of money to (a) organizing and lobbying for more research on the illness; and (b) making all kinds of costly changes to their home, lives, and routines to accommodate their ill child and make the child’s life more enriching. 4. Progress in treatment results from the parents’ tireless efforts.
This sequence became clear to me while reading Seth Mnookin’s piece, “One of a Kind” in the July 21, 2014, issue. The article focuses on a couple, a college professor and an M.B.A., whose son has an extraordinarily rare genetic disease, and their ultimately successful quest to push the medical establishment toward more data-sharing and collaboration to develop treatments. (Spoiler: the disease isn’t quite as rare as previously believed.) The article is great and fascinating: in addition to following a family with the surname Might and involving a glycobiologist who is actually named Hudson Freeze, it illustrates how more base human motivations (researchers’ desire for sole credit on publications; institutions’ need to compete for scarce funding) can impede medical progress. It also has a happy-ish ending: the Mights’ son is showing surprising progress as he gets older; research is progressing.
But all that progress is predicated on the fact that this terrible disease befell not just Matt and Cristina Might’s child, but the child of Matt and Kristen Wilsey as well. The Wilseys, we learn, “are one of the most prominent families in San Francisco.”
We’ve read lately that Americans are driving less than ever. Apparently, this cannot be explained simply by economics, but still: driving is expensive! AAA exhaustively details the costs of driving in this pdf. TL;DR: when you take into account gas, maintenance, financing, insurance, and registration, even a small sedan driven 20,000 miles a year (it gets cheaper the more you drive) costs $0.398/mile to operate. Does that seem maybe like not so much? Consider this: my old commute from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to midtown Manhattan would have cost $6.76 (plus unimaginable aggravation, plus parking).
On the heels of Ester’s exploration of trust fund kids (my position: don’t trust ‘em), I came upon this rather wide-ranging indictment of elite colleges and the admissions process in the New Republic: in short, the author avers, the Ivies squelch creativity, channel thinking and energy into a narrow set of endeavors, reinforce privilege, and perpetuate the illusion of a meritocracy: “This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead.”
And the cause (aside from, you know, how rich people always set stuff up to benefit themselves)?
Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools.